Victoria vows to overhaul child protection as Yoorrook Justice Commission begins public hearings

<span>Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP</span>
Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP

Daniel Andrews has vowed to overhaul Victoria’s child protection system, saying too many First Nations children are being taken away from their families by the state.

The premier made the comments at Government House on Monday, as he unveiled his new cabinet for the start of his third term. It coincided with the Yoorrook Justice Commission beginning public hearings to examine the child protection and criminal justice systems.

“I called this out as an area I want to see us do more and do better,” Andrews said. “We are taking too many First Nations kids away from their families.

“I want to make sure that we give much greater self determination and much greater Aboriginal control of the child protection system when it comes to their kids than we’ve ever done. I think we can lead the nation.”

Related: Victoria’s child protection system is creating ‘new stolen generation’, Aboriginal leader says

Andrews said he looked forward to meeting with the new minister for child protection, Lizzie Blandthorn, and Aboriginal community controlled organisations to “devise a new system”.

“I don’t want to take any kids away from their parents,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to have a situation where we are essentially delivering culturally inappropriate care.

“This is not a criticism of any child protection worker … of anyone who works in kinship care, foster care. They are amazing Victorians and they do us so proud every single day. It’s not their issue. It’s the system. The system is not designed properly.”

Blandthorn is the fifth minister to take on the portfolio in about 14 months, with weaknesses in the child protection system exposed in several reports this year, including three by the auditor general.

The system is being examined by the Yoorrook Justice Commission, which on Monday heard from Aunty Eva Jo Edwards.

At age 5, Edwards, her sisters and her eight-month-old brother were taken and placed in state care at the Lutheran children’s home in Kew.

“I can’t remember my life before the institutions,” Edwards told the commission on Monday.

“My earliest memory is a torch being shined in our faces while we were sleeping … they came back the next day and we were removed early the next day.”

Her older brothers, eight and 11, were sent to Burwood boys home, and Edwards struggled with her sense of identity.

“I knew I was different because of the colour of my skin,” she said “But that was all I knew.

“I was never told that I was loved, hugged, kissed, needed, or ever recalling that I was encouraged to think about what it is that I might achieve in life.”

Edwards spent 13 years in institutions and family group homes and has struggled with abandonment issues and addiction for much of her life.

Her brother took his own life at 25.

Related: Yoorrook Justice Commission: how will truth-telling process work and what will it achieve?

The Yoorrook commission will look into past and ongoing injustices experienced by Aboriginal Victorians.

It aims to develop a shared understanding among Victorians about the impact of colonisation and make reform recommendations to be included in future treaties.

A 2016 report on 980 Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care in Victoria found 88% experienced family violence, while more than 40% had been separated from siblings and their extended families.

One-in-four had no cultural support plan and 86% of children were case managed by non-Aboriginal agencies.

Counsel assisting the commission Tony McAvoy said Aboriginal children were 10 times more likely to be subjected to community-based supervision, and were nine times more likely to be in custody within the youth justice system.

McAvoy said the details heard at a Yoorrook roundtable suggested things have not changed since previous inquiries and reports on the impact of child protection and criminal justice systems.

“The harmful impacts of these interventions recorded are well recognised in the literature,” McAvoy told the hearing.